Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Buzz On Buzzards

I’ve lived in Tuolumne County, on Big Hill, all the years of my life, minus a few years out for going off to the university for an education or to travel in Europe or Mexico. It’s a fine county, this, and a place that, no matter how many times I leave it -- or vow to leave it, on those days I’m perceiving it as a cultural ghetto – I’m always glad that I don’t, or that I do, but then return. And of the many fine things I could praise about Tuolumne County, one of the most poignant is the annual buzzard migration.

Not everyone maintains, as I do, a buzzard altar. It’s in a place up on the side of a mountain where buzzards go to roost and preen and where I go to gather their long, glossy, blue-black feathers. I gather a bunch of them in both hands, hold my arms out until the feathers catch the wind, and then swoop around in obvious buzzard envy, born of years of watching these huge birds loft themselves unflappingly over hills and valleys  on the merest puff of wind. A buzzard rising on a thermal to become a speck in the summer sky is a thing of wonder, to envy and emulate, if possible. I think Leonardo da Vinci may have had buzzard envy, too, when he drew up his first plans for manned flight.

Anyway, for years and years – as long as I can remember, really – the buzzards have been roosting in droves in this same spot. They gather, regurgitate, talk over their vacation plans, regurgitate some more, flap lazily up and look around for something dead to eat, eat, roost, regurgitate and preen. This is the buzzard’s life and it’s a good one. They are total pacifists. They don’t kill to eat. They don’t harm a soul. That’s got to be good for their karma.

Anyway, in the fall the buzzards begin to congregate in really impressive numbers, and they begin their training flights around the mountain in groups of 10 or 15, their huge black wings silently soaring, their wrinkled red necks stuck out, always on the lookout for roadkill. They are massing and practicing for the annual buzzard migration, that ultimately brings them out of the Sierra foothills and into Mexico, where they winter over, fornicating and drinking and regurgitating tequila. At least, that’s always been my fantasy about it.

Sooner or later, each fall, the day comes when the buzzards say adios and they all jump into the air and take flight. They pass over my house like a flight of bombers heading for the Normandy coast. They darken the sun like a huge, silent, black, glistening cloud.

I’m sad on this day. I’ll miss them while they’re gone for the several months of winter. So I go up on the mountain and collect the last feathers. With string, I hang bunches of these loose feathers in the trees, where they kite around crazily on the wind. Usually there’s a dead buzzard up there, too, who accommodatingly died before the big trip and is left for the ants to eat, all the major scavengers having left the area and buzzards, I assume, being too polite to eat their own. I drag these carcasses to the buzzard altar, an old stump now continually anointed by the flickering shadows of the pendant feathers. I say a little prayer that the flying feathers will remind their souls to fly again, to lift off and soar into whatever heaven buzzards pass over into.

Maybe that seems strange to you, but I feel that the natural world gets all too little attention from us humans, and the buzzards in particular get a bad rap. It’s my small way of saying thank you to creatures who do some of the dirty work for us, cleaning up the creatures that we, in our haste and carelessness, strike dead and leave in the road as if their little lives didn’t matter at all. In answering Hillman’s question, what does the soul want? I find that my soul, at least, wants to honor all of God’s creation; that this is part of the stewardship that was mandated to us, from the Beginniing.

So, to the unnamed woman who thinks I’m not a Christian: have you honored God’s buzzards lately?

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